There was a time when I would walk for miles to avoid other anglers. If - when driving along the river - I came across another car in a parking area then chances are good I would just keep on going. I even tried to mask my movements bank side; at times hopping from rock to rock - like some sort of wader wearing ninja - to avoid leaving footprints in the mud. On the rare occasion when I did encounter another angler, I did my best to avoid conversation, feigning ignorance of the river and answering questions with the usual, "Don't know. It's my first time here." In simplest terms, I was about as antisocial a bug chucker as ever there was. Then two things happened to make me realize my foolishness: I rediscovered steelhead and I joined the ranks of the morbidly obese.
I wasn't always a fat man, although at no point in my life have I ever been skinny, slender, scrawny or svelte. Even when I was a soldier and possessed several clearly identifiable abdominal muscles, I weighed in at 225 pounds on my best days and a little more than that on my worst. I can only trace my family tree back a few generations, but I'm fairly certain that if I followed it to its source I'd discover my forbears hailed from someplace very cold and that they needed every bit of God's natural insulation.
I've said it more times than I count, both on this blog and elsewhere, that steelhead are a special gamefish. They're eager to take a fly, they're big, and they're fast - ridiculously fast. They're also accessible, and within a day's drive of many of the country's major metropolitan areas. This puts an excess of pressure on the most popular rivers as throngs of people embark on a great annual migration to steelhead choked water. The Salmon River likely sees as many anglers as any other steelhead water on either the east or west coast; in all likelihood she absorbs more bug chuckers, gear heads, pinners, and bait dunkers than most any other comparable piece of water. As a consequence, finding privacy on the Salmon River is sometimes a difficult endeavor. So what is a metalhead-loving bug chucker to do?
To my way of thinking, we have two choices. We can accept that the best water on the river is likely occupied, and try to get away from the crowd by fishing less prolific beats, or we can introduce ourselves to the other anglers who frequent the most popular runs. As I've said, there was a time when the second option wasn't even a choice for me. I couldn't bear being anywhere near an angler who wasn't part of my group. My attitude began to change, however, as I realized that the few people I met stream side all seemed to be good people who felt exactly as I did about steelhead - regardless of the method they employed in the pursuit.
I'm reminded of Leon. Leon was an older fella', perhaps in his mid seventies, who I encountered some years ago on a November trip to the river. Leon was nearby when I hooked one especially hot hen that took me into my backing several times before I was able to land her about 200 yards downstream of the run in which she was hooked. Unsolicited, the old fella did his best to follow me downstream - recording on a Flip video camera my attempt to subdue one the hardest fighting fish I've ever hooked. He later asked my email address and sent me both the file and his congratulations. He and I still correspond from time to time.
Then there was Utica. Utica was a 16 year old kid who fished alongside us on one of the rare days when we just didn't have it in us to hike a mile through the snow or pay $50.00 to fish water less traveled. As it turned out, Utica and I were both guilty of the same crime - truancy. He was a student at a local high school, and he was skipping class to hook a steelie. I was a teacher, and I was doing exactly the same. Utica was cordial, funny, and eager to learn. More to the point, he reminded me of the best qualities young people possess, and at the end of the day I was eager to get back in the classroom with my students.
Of course, I couldn't write this piece if I didn't mention Lou. I met Lou in one of the river's many parking areas when I overheard him berating himself for leaving his fly boxes at home; the poor guy had made a long drive and had no flies with which to fish. I opened my boxes and gifted him a dozen or so different bugs and then went on my way. Later that day, I again encountered Lou - this time grinning wide as he had just caught his first steelhead on one of the flies I had given him. We exchanged information and some time later I received a walnut turkey box call, hand made by Lou (who is the owner of Boss Tom Turkey Calls) and inscribed to "The Rusty Spinner."
It may very well be impossible to fish one popular section of the river without running into Char, Dick, Dave or Kenny. They're good guys, regulars on the Salmon who are happy to help the uninitiated if the uninitiated just take the time to ask. The only payment they'll expect is the opportunity to engage in some good natured ribbing every time the initiate loses a fish. I know this first hand.
And as I sit here at the keyboard, I find myself thinking of the fellas from Virginia - whose names I now forget - who inquired about the spey rod I was fishing, and then asked me to photograph them with the fish I caught so that they could impress their wives and friends. We fished together for the better part of the afternoon; I still laugh when I think of them showing off my fish to their sweethearts.
Most recently, I had the good fortune of meeting Sergeant First Class Trent Myer. Sergeant Myer is stationed at Fort Drum with the Army's 10th Mountain Division where he is the program leader of the post's branch of Project Healing Waters. He and I found ourselves fishing within seventy-five feet of each other when I hooked a 20lb king salmon that I was forced to chase right through the water Sergeant Myer's group was fishing. After I brought the king to hand, Sergeant Myer introduced himself, his son Hunter, and their friend Jim - a PHW volunteer who shares my penchant for Orvis Odyssey reels. We talked and fished together the remainder of the day.
My point here is not to be anecdotal, but rather to demonstrate the quality of people we may meet if only we're open to the experience. Solitude certainly has it's place, but if fishing brings us some of the best moments in our lives then I have to wonder how much better those moments might be if we shared them with someone. After all, we're all strangers until we've been properly introduced, and if we're meeting on the banks of a river then chances are we have more in common than not.